Mount Rainier National Park: The Complete Guide

Mount Rainier National Park
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Mount Rainier National Park

Address
Washington, USA
Phone +1 360-569-2211

Of all of the outstanding wilderness landscapes that can be found in Washington State, Mount Rainier National Park stands head and shoulder above the others. Spread out over nearly 370 square miles, the park is one of the premiere outdoor destinations in the entire U.S., luring in excess of two million visitors on an annual basis. Many of those visitors come from across the globe to test their strength, stamina, and skills on the park's titular mountain, which is one of the most famous climbs in the entire world.

When it was declared a national park by President William McKinley back in 1899, Mount Rainier became just the fifth location to earn that distinction. Prior to that, the thick, old-growth forest that surrounded the mountain had been designated a national forest, encompassing 91,000 acres of pristine wilderness.

At the heart of the park is Mount Rainier itself, a 14,410-foot peak that towers above all other mountains in the Cascade Range. An active stratovolcano, Rainier creates a striking presence that dominates the horizon as far away as the city of Seattle, located 80 miles to the north. The most glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states, Rainier is the starting point for five individual rivers that feed other outdoor environments spread out across the western United States.

A paradise for hikers and climbers, Mount Rainier National Park has plenty to offer the active outdoor enthusiasts. But its picturesque landscapes will appeal to any traveler who appreciates lush forests, stunning alpine meadows, dramatic glaciers, and rugged peaks. Those who make the journey will likely be captivated by everything that this place has to offer.

A pair of mountain climbers hike up a snow covered trail on Mount Rainier

Andrew Peacock/Getty

Things to Do

As with most of the U.S. national parks, there is plenty to see and do inside Mount Rainier National Park. For instance, the park's remote roads are excellent for cyclists looking to test their legs. Anglers will find numerous lakes and ponds to cast their lines, while backpackers can pitch their tents in some of the most scenic campsites imaginable. And during the winter months, the park's trails make excellent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing routes.

Of course, one of the more popular activities in the park is climbing Mount Rainier. The glaciated summit of the volcano serves as an excellent location for veteran climbers to hone their skills, while providing beginners the chance to gain some much-needed experience. Many use Rainier as a training ground before climbing higher, more difficult peaks elsewhere, including Alaska, the Andes, and the Himalaya.

Only very experienced mountaineers should attempt to climb Rainier on their own and a permit is always required. Others should sign up for a guided expedition with a mountaineering operator such as RMI or Alpine Ascents. Plan on spending a minimum of three days on such a climb, although some options include extra days for training. For more information on climbing Mount Rainier, click here.

Best Hikes & Trails

Day hikers and long-distance trekkers will find hundreds of miles of trail to explore, all in the shadow of the mountain itself. Whether you're looking for a short and easy route or something long and challenging, the park can certainly accommodate. For example, the 4.8-mile Rampart Ridge Trail connects to the iconic Wonderland Trail, providing a taste of the very best hiking that the park has to offer. The 11-mile Summerland trail is beautiful all year long, but especially so when the wildflowers are in bloom throughout the summer, while the breathtaking Sunrise Rim Trail is 5.7 miles of scenic vistas and tends to be a bit less traveled than some other hikes.

Speaking of the Wonderland Trail, it is 93 miles of some of the most spectacular backcountry that any backpacker could hope to find. The route wanders completely around Mount Rainier, circumnavigating the entire base of the mountain itself. Completing that hike is a rite of passage for many trekkers, requiring experience, stamina, and proper planning. Beginning backpackers are encouraged to only go with a guide or veteran hiker rather than walking the route alone.

Other options for a long distance hike include the Northern Loop Trail, which covers more than 40 miles through one of the more remote and seldom visited sections of the park. A section of the Pacific Crest Trail also passes through the park, with thru-hikers catching a glimpse of the mountain as they head north and south along that famous route. If you do plan to hike a route that requires overnight stays in the backcountry, you'll need a permit for each day.

A wooden sign at the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park

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Where to Eat and Stay

Most visitors to Mount Rainier NP will book lodging in Seattle or one of the small communities that are located just outside the park's borders. Those places offer accommodations to fit every budget, but do require some driving and the start and end of your day. Visitors who wish to stay within the park itself do have a few options to choose from however, ranging from historic lodges to remote campgrounds.

The park's lodges include the National Park Inn at Longmire and Paradise Inn, both of which have dining halls that serve breakfast lunch, and dinner. The National Park Inn is open year round, while Paradise Inn has seasonal vacancy from late-May to early-October. Both are popular places to stay, so be sure to book reservations early.

Modern campsites that can accommodate vehicles—including RVs—are available at Cougar Rock, Ohanapecosh, White River, and Mowich Lake. Staying in these locations also require reservations and come with individual and group site fees of $20 and $60 respectively. Primitive camping in the backcountry is free, but as already mentioned requires a permit.

In addition to the dining halls located at the park's lodges, visitors can also grab lunch at the Paradise Camp Deli. Grab and go options, including snacks and drinks, can be found at the Sunrise Day Lodge and the Longmire General Store. Be warned however, most of these outlets have seasonal hours and are generally not open year round.

A large and ominous-looking cloud hovers in front of Mount Rainier

John McAnulty/Getty

How to Get There

Mount Rainier National Park is nicely situated between a number of major metropolitan areas, including Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, and Portland. Each of those cities is within 200 miles of the park and has an airport that provides access to the region. Those locations all have rental car options as well for self-driving to the park.

Access to the park's entrances vary depending on where you're coming from. For instance, if you're driving from Seattle to the Nisqually Entrance in the southeast section of the park, take I-5 South to SR 512 East to SR 7 South to SR 706 into Elbe. Alternatively, the East Entrance can be reached by taking I-5 South to I-405 East to SR 167 South. From there, take SR 410 East all the way into the White River Entrance.

Alternatively, if you're coming from Portland, follow I-5 North to Hwy 12 East to SR 7 North to SR 706 to the Nisqually Entrance. Or, head to the White River Entrance by taking I-5 North to SR 512 East to SR 167, exiting at Exit 135 in Tacoma. Then travel east on SR 167 to SR 410 straight into the park.

Accessibility

As you would expect, most of the backcountry trails and campsites do not offer accessibility options for handicapped visitors. But, the front country park facilities, including lodges, the visitor center, general stores, and restaurants are all accessible. That includes restrooms, picnic areas, and ranger facilities.

One trail that does offer wheelchair accessibility is the lower meadows found at Paradise, one of the more popular and scenic locations in the park. Two ramps—one gravel the other paved but steep—take travelers down into this area, making it a can't-miss location for anyone.

For further information on accessibility in the park, click here.

A meadow filled with wildflowers with Mount Rainier in the background

JeffGoulden/Getty

Tips For Your Visit

  • The park is at its busiest between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. If your goal is to avoid the larger crowds, try to visit on a weekday during that period. Outside of the busy summer travel season, the crowds thin out quickly, dropping off dramatically during the winter.
  • Mount Rainier is famous for its impressive wildflower blooms, which take place each summer. To witness this stunning natural phenomenon for yourself, plan on visiting sometime between mid-July and late-August, when the alpine meadows are awash in colors.
  • Mount Rainier is a massive, imposing mountain that can dramatically impact the weather in the park at just about any time during the year. While conditions are mostly stable during the warmer summer months, spring, fall, and especially winter can lead to unpredictable weather. This in turn can disrupt access to the park and close down roads. Always check road conditions before setting out for the park.
  • A $30 fee per vehicle is charged for entrance into the park, although that is good for seven days of unlimited entries. Motorcycles are charged $25 and there is a $15 "walk-up" fee for those on foot or bike. An annual pass to Mount Rainier is $55, which is a good deal for frequent visitors.
  • While Mount Rainier National Park is open year round, many of the facilities have limited operating hours or are closed at certain times of the year. Depending on when you plan to go, it is a good idea to review the park's schedule.
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Mount Rainier National Park: The Complete Guide